This past Sunday I spent time with our 7th graders during Sunday School to hang out, learn with them, and be blessed by an awesome couple who are serving there. When I came in several of them said "Mr Scott! You're in here today? Cool!"
Now let me be worldly for a minute. That felt good. It's nice being "Mister" and to hear them glad to see me. OK, back to the post.
In student ministry we can quickly buy into a "hero syndrome" if we're not careful. We become trusted leaders, confidants, counselors, and mentors for an entire generation of students. Because so many times our students run to us, we can buy into a syndrome that says "they need me more than they need _____" (the blank can be parents, teachers, older siblings, coaches, pastors). Also, when we first enter a ministry season we can come in with all the answers, ideas, and motivation. We're like the brand new quarterback taken in the draft who the ownership and fans look at as the answer to the team's woes. And in so many of those situations, what's being peddled is a false hope because no one person can match up to all the expectations put on them.
How can we avoid the hero syndrome in student ministry? Here's 6 ways:
1) Don't make it about you - Your ministry is not about you. And it never should be. If the student ministry you're leading could not survive without you, you're doing it wrong. The best way to not make it about you is to build up, elevate, and brag on the volunteers and adult leaders serving alongside you. Put them in the best place to succeed and serve well.
2) Be the champion for parents - Teenagers and toddlers are pretty similar, they divide and conquer. If they don't like what their parents say or make them do, they will come to you to take their side. I've learned (the hard way sometimes) the best thing to always do is point back to mom & dad and encourage your student to live out Ephesians 6:1 "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." They are the ones who have been given the task of raising their children, not you.
3) Don't be a secret keeper - A hero syndrome comes when a student ministry leader becomes the keeper of student secrets. It's not a bad thing in itself when they confide in you and follow it with "but hey, don't tell anyone about this." In some ways we need to protect confidentiality (for example don't post on Facebook who you're meeting with and why), but we're under no obligation morally or legally to hide things from the authorities or their parents. Whenever a student meets with me and says they need to confess some sin, I always ask if they've talked to their parents about it, and if they've not I volunteer to go with them.
4) Don't promise the moon - The reason why false hope gets peddled and believed in football is because we get all these promises from coaches and athletes that <insert cliche about winning>. We do the same when we make huge promises early in our ministry that we know we can't deliver on, but they sound good because they're what people want to hear. Be realistic about what kind of objectives you're setting.
5) Be accountable - The worst thing that can happen to a leader in any ministry is a failure to be held accountable. Not a brow-beating accountability, but the regular reality check we all need to kill our sin and grow in our faith. If we don't have that, we'll buy into the hero mentality that says "Well who do I really answer to anyway... God. So I don't need anyone else to tell me what to do." That attitude is a recipe for disaster. The best advice I can give for student ministers is to be discipled by an older believer or by your pastor. Don't wall yourself off from others in your life.
6) Network - When we get around others in ministry, I believe it serves two great purposes: It gives us the encouragement to keep pressing on, and it gives us the relief that we're not the only ones struggling to figure it all out. I went to a pastors conference a few years ago at a megachurch with an internationally known pastor. Their student ministry did a breakout session and we all went in trying to figure out what the "magic touch" was that they did. We were all encouraged, relieved, and laughing when their leadership looked at each other and said "we teach the Bible, we spend time together, and we serve."
Ever heard of the app TimeHop? It's an app that uses your social media history (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and shows you each day what you said/posted that day a year ago, two years ago, and back. Carrie and I love it because we can look back at pictures of the boys and marvel at how quickly they're growing up, we can see what we were doing while we were dating and engaged by the pictures we post, and we can laugh at the long journey we both took for doctoral work.
TimeHop can teach us a few things about student ministry, both good and bad:
1) The past is great to remember, but terrible to live in - TimeHop gives us a glimpse into the past and allows us to relive the memories of newborn babies, the first months of marriage, graduation, and other important events. But those events have come and gone, and we can't try to live the "glory days" like The Boss sings about. For us in student ministry, we need to remember and cherish the memories of past camps, events, and spiritual milestones. But we can't do that at the expense of the crop of middle schoolers desperate to hear from God's Word. A lot of our students are learning to drive now, and one of the first things to teach a new driver is to glance at the rear-view mirror but focus on where you're going.
2) God has used you before, and will again - When we see TimeHop, we see really cool things that have happened before. We get to see the early days of our oldest learning to walk and talk, and we get to celebrate past things that we went through that were really special. For us in student ministry, looking back in the past is a great way to remember how God used us before. And Philippians 1:3 tells us that when God begins a work in us, He'll see it through to the end. We can claim and rest in the fact that God used us before and He's going to again. This past summer we took a group on a mission trip and some on the team had been the previous year. They got to watch (like I did) as the week unfolded and the connections were made and the Gospel was preached and hope was built into siding and roofs and decks and paint.
3) You're making a difference - Someone said they saw me mowing my yard the other day and I explained to them how helpful it is as a stress relief (I can mow it and see progress and when the job is done I can drink some water, get a shower, and admire the finished product). So often in student ministry the results don't get noticed for years, until they're a college student and they realize how important their faith is, or they get married and make the commitment to build a godly legacy. Until then the hyperactive and somewhat distracted nature of middle and high school makes you wonder if you'd rather talk to the wall because it listens better. A few months ago I saw a group picture of the first short-term mission trip we took with our students. Most of them are graduated and moved on, and looking at that picture I saw how the course of the last 6+ years shaped them for the rest of their lives.
4) What you say leaves a forever digital footprint - In ministry, the most important role is that of teacher/preacher, and we use words as our currency in that role. What we say has a huge impact, whether we actually said it or not! Matthew 12:36-37 reminds us that we will have to give an account for every word we say. That's why James says it's not for everyone to be a teacher! In student ministry, we need to remember that the words we say and the way we say them matters.
All over the country NFL teams are enduring the heat of summer, two-a-days, endless conditioning drills, and meaningless preseason games for one purpose: September 10th when the regular season kicks off. That's when the games count, when fans fill stadiums and restaurants, fantasy rosters are drafted and traded, and whole weekends are tied up with football. And while fans may get impatient for the games, every player and coach knows how important these weeks are for their teams. Every action of training camp is designed to bring success during the season.
I want to propose that we see the adolescent years like training camp. Much has been written about the "Boomerang" generation that delays growing up to extend the carefree, no-responsibility, and lazy years of childhood. Some cultural commentators have extended the adolescent years into the 30s or beyond. Instead of training ground, adolescence has become a holding tank. I believe there are 7 areas where we can redeem adolescence and move away from a holding tank. Here's a chart that shows what these 7 areas look like when we assume a holding tank and training ground mentality.
It's an open secret at our church that whenever I take our students on a trip and we have to stop for a meal, there's one place I take them: Chick-Fil-A. The conspiracy theorist thinks it's because of their Christian principles and stance on marriage. The cynic thinks I get a kickback (I wish!). The vegetarian thinks I'm discriminating (sorry). But to be totally honest, their food is great and they handle big groups really well. So whenever we have a "meal stop" I always let people get 3 guesses where we'll try to stop, and the first two don't count.
But Chick-Fil-A teaches us a lot about leadership as well. We can learn a lot about how to lead others from the culture and climate Chick-Fil-A has set up. Oh, and they have waffle fries.
1) We should be enthusiastic about what we do - Nothing is more obvious than fake excitement, like the salesman who downed a case of Red Bull before calling or the car salesman who wind sprints across the parking lot (that really did happen to me once). What sets Chick-Fil-A apart and what they teach about leadership is that their staff is genuinely glad to be there, enjoys what they are doing, and are proud of their product. Leaders need to do that as well, because they set the pace. It's not fist-pumping screaming, but it's marked by being genuine.
2) Leaders always need to think about innovation - Let's be honest, if Chick-Fil-A just stuck to the chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and Coke they'd be golden. But they're not satisfied with maintaining what's always worked, they're always looking for new ways and new products and new services. So they offer grilled chicken, nuggets, breakfast, fruit, coffee as additional products. And they offer the mom valet, family nights, and other ways to engage their customers. I believe the worst thing a leader can say is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" because that's the starting point for maintenance mode. Leaders always need to be exploring and trying different ways to be more effective.
3) Excellence is priority - Truett Cathy once said "Food is necessary to life, therefore, make it good." For them, constantly delivering a great product is of utmost importance. Leaders can never settle for anything less than the best and making excellence the accepted standard. Note: I'm not saying perfection. The fries will be burned, the sound system will go out, your sermon notes will disappear from your iPad. But when we make excellence the standard, even when things go off the rails, we're positioned to keep rolling.
4) Time off is important - You know you love Chick-Fil-A when you're out on a Sunday and it sounds good. But alas, you can't have it. And you never will. They are committed to being closed on Sunday to allow their employees time to worship, rest, and spend time with their family. Leaders need to make sure they are scheduling their off time, taking advantage of their vacation, and when they're off they need to be off. We weren't created to grind into the ground, God designed the Sabbath for us to rest, focus on Him, and recover from our work. Leaders who value time off are able to endure the long seasons of difficulty that come from leadership.
5) Generosity is important - I remember once working at Starbucks and a new location was coming in the Louisville area. Their management team came in for coffee and I struck a conversation with them where I shared my appreciation for the company culture they created and how they seek to build solid people, not just employees. Dude walks out to his car and hands me a stack of coupons. My jaw hit the ground. I was a broke seminary student, now I could eat for a couple weeks (except Sunday of course). Leaders are blessed to be a blessing, and we should lead the charge on generosity by giving, serving, sacrificing, and creating an environment where that is valued.
6) Model servant leadership - One of my students from a graduate class I taught is in management for Chick-Fil-A. Besides scoring brownie points with me for giving my boys a cow when we came in to eat once, she taught me a lot about how servant leadership is the norm for team members. I've watched store owners clean up kid messes, run food to customers, and get drink refills. No job is too low, too messy, too unimportant for them to do. They lead with the model of Jesus as a servant, who washed the Disciples' feet and made Himself into a servant to show us how we should love, lead, and serve each other.
So thanks Chick-Fil-A, for your awesome food, play spaces for my boys to burn off some energy, and your clever cow commercials.
Anytime I talk about family discipleship and raising up the next generation, I always build it around 3 questions:
These three questions help shape the importance of sharing the Gospel within our homes and give us the urgency to remember that our children are eternal but only ours for a short time. Missions provides an important role in the shaping of our children's faith so that they would grow up to be lifelong followers of Christ, who then pass the faith on to their kids and their kids.
Missions let our children know that God is a loving, sending, and saving God. When we do missions with our kids, we're showing them more of the character of God who loves people, sends us out as witnesses for Him, and who saves them from their sin and brings them into fellowship with Jesus. When we do missions, we're teaching our kids that God loves us, loves others, and wants us to serve them and love them like Jesus did. We build Scripture into missions because our mandate for serving and going comes from God, who rejoices when the lost come home.
Missions help our children to love others without asking anything in return. Whenever Jesus looked at people, the Gospels over and over describe him as having compassion on them. Jesus' love for others was built on what He had to give them and what He was able to do, not on what they could do to pay him back. Missions teaches our children that loving others is what we do because Jesus loves us and gave Himself for us.
Missions give our children an opportunity to serve and build a lifetime of giving. I took my 4 year old on a one-day youth mission trip to serve a homeless ministry in Nashville. He had fun stacking things and moving water around (and riding on the floor dolly). And even though he didn't totally get it, we were able to talk about how what we were doing was helping other people because we want them to know and love Jesus. My prayer is that he'd continue to serve and share and develop a lifetime of missions where he wants to be a part of what God's doing to save people.
So how can you engage in missions with your kids and students?
1) Get in touch with missionaries and regularly pray for them - Contact the IMB, NAMB, or other sending agencies like TLI,
and ask for names to pray for. Many of these agencies love when people pray for their missionaries.
2) Go find a local ministry or mission to serve at - In your community there are places where people are serving others in Jesus' name. Consider taking your family there and serve together.
3) Make a missions piggy bank - Our church has regular opportunities to give for missions, and we try to make it a priority in our home to be generous with what God has given us, and that carries over to our kids. Put a piggy bank in your house and for a month put all your spare change in it, and at the end of the month give it to a solid missions group.
4) Give stuff away - Our closets, attics, and storage buildings are full of things we'll never use again (no matter how much you might think you will). So give it away to people who serve the homeless, who provide meals for the needy, and who run a clothes closet through a local church. It helps teach your family to love Jesus, love others, and not like your stuff too much.
5) Go somewhere - As a family, consider going overseas or into a different cultural context than what you're used to. Partner up with a missionary or church planter and ask how your entire family can bless them and serve Jesus there. Instead of taking a beach vacation, put the money towards a family mission trip. Let your kids and students see you serving Jesus with joy, and don't be surprised if they do the same.
Any other tips or ways to help families serve and be on mission?
The highlight of the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona was the assembling of the most dominating basketball team in international history: the USA “Dream Team.” They won their games by an average of 44 points, they never called a timeout, their hardest games were their practice scrimmages, the leading scorer was Charles Barkley, and the roster had 10 of the 50 greatest NBA players. I was 10 when this all happened and got to watch most of the games, and was in awe of what I got to watch. The USA had reclaimed the gold medal in basketball, and had cemented itself as the benchmark program in FIBA. Fast forward to 2004 in Greece. The USA finished with the bronze medal, losing 3 games in the tournament. For perspective, in the modern Olympics since basketball was a medal sport (1936), the USA had lost 2 games total. What happened? I would say that this is what happens when a team isn’t a team.
Here’s a comparison of the 1992, 2004, and 2012 teams on perhaps the best statistic to monitor an effective team: assists to turnovers. In 1992, the team averaged 32.4 assists and only 9 turnovers. In 2004 that number had changed to 15.2 assists and 14.5 turnovers. In 2012, the team averaged 25.1 assists and 2.4 turnovers. The 2004 squad was a roster full of talented players, but many of them had reputations around the NBA for being “me first” guys - Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, and Lamar Odom. Meanwhile, the 1992 and 2012 teams were marked by guys who had reputations for being team-first players, and was grounded in solid leadership with LeBron, D-Wade, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. The 2004 team was absent of any solid, vocal, trusted leadership - Tim Duncan is the rock of fundamentals and team play but is not known for being a vocal leader.
What lessons can we take from this for the local church and especially on the ministry staff as a team? I believe there are four:
In 2005, LifeWay’s Facts & Trends noted that the average stay for a senior pastor at a church was only about 7.7 years. When you look at the other ministry positions in a church, the stay is much shorter. Alan Rudnick at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership gives 2-3 years as the average stay for an associate pastor. The cliche in youth ministry has been if you can make it longer than 18 months you’re ahead of the curve!
I found a lot of this in my study on associate church leaders, as well as my doctoral dissertation. In my dissertation, the average stay of a lead pastor at a church was 9.7 years with a standard deviation of 7.4 years (in other words, not a lot of consistency) with half of them serving for 7 years or less. Associate pastors had an average tenure of 2.9 years, whereas my larger study showed an average tenure of 6.9 years (but 56% had been there less than 5 years - there were some long tenured guys who pushed the average higher). Basically, the same conclusions can be reached: ministers are not staying around in churches very long. The ripple effects of this are huge - significant vision is never carried out, generational impact is lost, consistency is absent in the staffing structure, expectations are never clear as leadership changes frequently, associate staff question their place, proteges find no mentors, and lead pastors spend much of their time filling ministry positions rather than effectively building the Kingdom.
Any number of reasons can be given for this. The web group ExPastors says that many leave after short tenures because of overwork, underpay, unprepared, depression/discouragement, loneliness, or families negatively impacted. Jeremy Zach at ChurchLeaders believes youth pastors move on because of finances, differences in theology/leadership, or not fitting into a church/community culture. Vanderbloemen Search Group has 10 reasons great staff members leave, which include a lack of voice in strategy, micromanagement, office politics, a lack of support during conflict, a lack of encouragement, compensation issues, and a lack of investment. Many of these show up on Thom Rainer’s negative reasons for a minister to leave a church, and places blame for the departures on both sides depending on the reason.
What can be done to stave the trend of microwave ministers? I want to propose 3 ways:
There’s often a stereotype attached to youth ministers. They tend to be younger, less organized, they’re addicted to energy drinks, they wake up at the crack of noon, their hair is long, they rock a beard, and they don’t know what they want to be if they grow up.
But here’s the shocking news, that guy whose office smells funny and who never returns a call but texts back instantly could be your successor. The large study I just finished on SBC associate pastors turned up a surprising finding - the most likely place the next generation’s lead pastors are is in youth ministry. More than any other single-focus associate-level description, youth ministers responded the most to the question “Do you aspire to one day become a lead pastor?” Of the 109 out of 463 who answered they wanted to be a lead pastor, 44 of them were youth ministers. It would seem, from the data collected, that this position is serving as a preparatory phase for the next generation’s lead pastors.
I’m really not sure why this is, and I’d love to know what input you might have to know why. So take advantage of the comments section at the end and let’s continue this discussion!
Here are 5 ways for lead pastors to invest in the “youth guy:”
I’m finishing up a study on the career expectations of SBC associate pastors for a journal article and to present at a professional society. I wanted to see what the next generation of senior leadership in the SBC looked like by analyzing where they were currently serving, how they understand their current calling, their tenure and their age. After surveying 463 people in 37 states, the largest response to the question “What are you and your lead pastor doing to help get you ready for that position?” was “Nothing.”
Nothing is being done to help prepare the next generation of leaders in the perfect laboratory to cultivate their calling, skills, and preparation. Nothing is being done by a generation of pastors who who have an established relationship with a young man who God may call into a pastorate.
The great news is that in the study I found a lot of younger associate pastors who were being developed by their lead pastor, who were studying under his leadership, who were functioning as an apprentice, who were excited about the relationship they had with their lead pastor. For those I am so thankful and encouraged.
But I can’t escape the fact that of the 109 surveyed who said they wanted to be a lead pastor, 44 of them said their lead pastor was doing nothing. What did nothing look like? One said “he’s more focused on his publishing,” another “I find it difficult to confide in him,” “he would be very supportive, but right now we’re too focused on our current tasks,” “he scheduled guest speakers when he would be out after finding out I wanted to be a lead pastor,” “she doesn’t know,” “go to school for that,” “he does teach me, but it’s unintentional.”
I want to propose four reasons why I think nothing happens.
Nothing has long term consequences, though. Nothing produces a leadership culture that focuses on the immediate at the expense of the long-term, a culture that sees people as cogs and not integral parts, projects more than prospects, and primarily sees church culture as a product to be consumed. In my doctoral work, I used the idea of discipleship to describe the development of associate pastors rather than mentoring or growth.
Discipleship takes time, it’s messy, it’s very frustrating, but the end result is a young leader who will one day move on from your church into another congregation as a trained, competent, prepared, and effective minister. The end result isn’t so that a leader can have a great “family tree” of proteges who have come under his discipling, but so that the Bride of Christ can be made more pure before Her Husband. Discipling your associate pastors, especially those who want to be in your shoes one day, is a benefit to the Body of Christ.
Reject the culture of nothing, embrace a culture of replication. If you train one associate pastor who leaves to pastor, and then he does the same thing. In 3 “generations” there will be a legacy of 8 fully trained pastors, and it exponentially multiplies from there. Imagine a city full of competent, prepared, and effective pastors - what could be done there? That’s God’s desire, not nothing.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.